High Triglyceride Levels May Lower Risk of Dementia but Raise It for Stroke, Heart Disease

A woman eating apples.
New research suggests that having high levels of triglycerides may lower your risk of dementia while raising the risks of heart disease and stroke.  OLEKSANDRA TROIAN/Getty Images
  • A study found that higher levels of triglycerides were linked to a lower risk of dementia.
  • They were also associated with slower cognitive decline as people aged.
  • However, there was not enough data to state the effect of higher-than-normal levels.
  • Experts advise that people should not be seeking to have high levels of triglycerides.
  • Rather, a healthy diet and exercise are the best ways to reduce your dementia risk.

According to new research published online in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, older adults who have higher levels of triglycerides within the normal to high-normal range appear to have a reduced risk of developing dementia.

They also have slower cognitive decline as they age.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that triglycerides are a type of fat found in our blood.

Sources of triglycerides include butter, oils, and other fats found in food.

They can also come from eating more calories than we need. Any time we consume more calories than we require for energy production, they are stored in the body’s cells in the form of triglycerides.

The NIH notes that some triglycerides are necessary for good health. However, excess amounts in the blood can increase the risk for conditions like heart disease and stroke.

The study authors speculate that having triglycerides in the upper end of the normal range might indicate that a person is engaging in a lifestyle that is protective against dementia.

“Triglyceride levels may serve as a useful predictor for dementia risk and cognitive decline in older populations,” they concluded.

How higher triglycerides were linked with lower risk for dementia

The research team identified over 18,000 people with an average age of 75 who did not have any sort of dementia.

These individuals were then followed for an average of six years to determine who subsequently developed dementia with 823 people eventually going on to receive the diagnosis.

During each year of the study, a lipid panel was run including total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides.

People were then divided into four groups based on their level of fasting triglycerides. The lowest triglyceride group had levels less than 62 mg/dL.

The next highest group had levels ranging from 63 to 106 mg/dL. The group above that had levels from 107 to 186 mg/dL. And, finally, the highest group had levels of 187 mg/dL or higher.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that each time triglycerides doubled, it was associated with an 17% lower risk of dementia.

They also found that higher triglycerides were associated with slower cognitive decline over time.

The researchers did note, however, that there weren’t enough people in the study with moderate (200-500 mg/dL) to severely elevated (>500 mg/dL) triglycerides for them to determine how this might affect dementia risk.

They also stated that a limitation of the research is that only people 65 and older who had no cognitive issues initially were studied. Therefore, “the findings are not generalizable to other populations.”

Why higher triglycerides might protect against dementia

Dr. Kien Vuu — a triple board-certified MD, human performance and longevity specialist, and author of Thrive State — said, “The association between higher levels of triglycerides (TG) within the normal range and a potentially reduced risk of dementia, as described in the article, is indeed intriguing and somewhat counterintuitive given the conventional understanding of lipid health.”

However, there might be a few different possible explanations for this link.

One is neuroprotection, he said. “Certain lipid species within the triglycerides could have a neuroprotective effect, contributing to neuronal growth, repair, and overall brain health.”

Vuu added that the brain is rich in lipids and certain types of lipids play vital roles in maintaining the integrity of neural membranes as well as in facilitating cell signaling.

Another possible explanation is energy supply, he said. “Triglycerides are key energy reserves, and higher levels (within a normal range) might ensure an adequate energy supply to the brain, which is critical for its functioning.”

“Insufficient energy supply is a potential risk factor for neurodegenerative processes,” he added.

Finally, it might be about biochemical balance, said Vuu. “The interplay between different types of lipids, including cholesterol, triglycerides, and various phospholipids, might influence brain health in a yet undiscovered equilibrium.

“Higher TG levels might interact with other lipids or biological systems in ways that are neuroprotective,” he explained.

Vuu concluded by noting that the study’s findings, while robust, are still observational.

“This nature raises the possibility of confounding factors or even reverse causation, where early, undetected neurodegenerative changes might influence lipid metabolism, rather than vice versa,” he said.

Dietary habits that can reduce your risk for dementia

Given the interplay between diet and triglyceride levels, one area to look at in reducing your dementia risk is through good nutrition.

Kelsey Costa, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the National Coalition on Healthcare, said, “For adults in the earlier and middle stages of their lives, maintaining lower triglyceride levels, typically achieved through a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle, can play a significant role in mitigating the risk of dementia as they age.”

Costa advised that laboratories usually classify triglyceride measures below 150 mg/dL as normal, while anything under 90 mg/dL is considered to be optimal.

“To achieve this,” said Costa, “individuals should focus on a balanced, heart-healthy diet, like the DASH or Green Mediterranean diet, with adequate intake of fats from sources such as fatty fish, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.”

She also recommends avoiding ultra-processed foods high in fats and sugar; limiting alcohol consumption; and managing your weight through diet and exercise in order to keep your triglycerides in check.

However, while values below 90 mg/dL might be deemed to be optimal for younger people, this study suggests that, for older adults, maintaining triglyceride levels within the high-normal range may have additional benefits for brain health and dementia prevention, according to Costa.

She emphasized, however, that the exact relationship between triglycerides and dementia risk remains unknown. More research is needed in order to understand what these findings really mean.

“It’s important to note,” she added, “that this does not mean individuals should aim for high triglyceride levels.

“Rather, maintaining a balanced, nutrient-dense diet and regular exercise regimen throughout life is key.”

Takeaway

A new study has found a link between higher blood triglyceride levels within the normal to high normal range and a lower risk of developing dementia in older adults.

People with higher triglycerides also had slower cognitive decline as they grew older.

However, the findings cannot be applied to triglyceride levels above the high normal range due to a lack of data. This means that people should not be seeking to have high triglyceride levels.

The best way to reduce your risk for dementia is to eat a balanced, nutritious diet and get regular exercise.

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